Thousands of people, Taiwanese and expatriates alike, are to spread out across 20 locations today for the third annual Taiwan National Clean Up Day, with the aim of collecting 10 tonnes of trash. Today’s efforts are just one of many such events held annually nationwide to mark Earth Day, International Coastal Cleanup Day or as part of community outreach programs organized by local and central government bodies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private companies.
For years, such cleanups in Taiwan have largely focused on beaches and harbor areas — as today’s in Keelung, Taichung, Hualien County and elsewhere — but this year they also plan to cover forest hiking trails and popular mountain scenic spots, such as New Taipei City’s Rueifang (瑞芳) and Pingsi (平溪) districts, where sky lantern debris is a blight on the landscape, and discarded lunchboxes, bottles and cups left behind by visitors have become a growing problem.
In August last year, a report by Hu Chieh-shen (胡介申) of the Society of Wilderness, Alexander Kunz at National Taiwan University and Bruno Walther at National Sun Yat-Sen University analyzed data collected by the society over 12 years on the types of garbage found along Taiwan’s coastline during 541 beach cleanups. The report said that the 131,4 tonnes of trash collected consisted of 904,302 items, with almost 91 percent being fishery equipment and plastic or mixed plastic, such as shopping bags, bottle caps, disposable tableware, eating utensils, straws and food containers. They extrapolated that up to 7.9 million items of debris — of 1.1 million kilograms — is washed up on Taiwan’s shoreline at any one time. They said macroplastic pollution has “reached pervasive and catastrophic proportions.”
That gloomy prognosis makes the organizers’ goal for today’s cleanup — 10 tonnes — a drop in the ocean, seemingly Sisyphean. Yet, such visible reminders of the problem, and the scale, are desperately needed.
The “Guidebook of Marine Debris” released by the environmental education association Re-Think in December last year put a face to the problem with photographs of the 101 most common plastic items found on the nation’s beaches, including plastic slippers, videotapes, Hello Kitty toys and fishery items such as nets and lines.
It also reminded the public that such waste takes decades to decompose, as one item was the wrapping from a 1988 military food package found on Kinmen that still bore its “Unite against the communists and promote love for our compatriots” slogan and a picture of former president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國).
Macroplastics do eventually break down, but then those meso and nanoplastics contaminate marine life and water supplies. A survey published by the Environmental Protection Administration in September last year said that most samples of tap water and seafood collected by the agency were found to be contaminated with microplastics. The survey caused alarm, but not always for the right reasons, with representatives of fish farmers saying that it might cause unnecessary panic among consumers.
Perhaps such panic is needed, as years of public-relations and information efforts on the part of governmental and NGO bodies and efforts to charge for plastic shopping bags and reduce littering still have had only a minor effect, while plans to ban all single-use plastics are still more than a decade away.
Cleaning up the nation’s beaches and hiking trails will continue to be a never-ending task until more people see that protecting the environment requires a collective approach on the part of the government and individuals, and more people adopt a “Leave No Trace” mindset in the great outdoors — as well as at home.
Such efforts would not completely eliminate marine and other pollution, but they would be more than just a drop in the bucket.
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